The Evolution of Preserving Agriculture in Marin County

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By Lily Verdone, Executive Director

November 16, 2023

THIS OP-ED FIRST APPEARED IN THE POINT REYES LIGHT

When we think about agriculture in Marin County, we have a shared sense of what comes to mind: rolling pasture land, organic milk, grass fed beef, artisan cheeses, fields of row crops, and community-grown fibers. 

There is this iconic picture that comes to mind. But agriculture in Marin has not always been the same. 

Once Marin produced a quarter of California’s butter and was fourth in the state in potato production. We dry farmed 857 acres of artichokes, and planted 2,000 acres of peas, crops that are no longer grown commercially within the county. 

Agriculture in Marin County changed with the times, in response to economic and environmental factors, and it will continue to change into the future. We have to be ready for those changes so agriculture can thrive for future generations.

Along the same lines, the concept of preserving agriculture in Marin County is also something that is constantly changing.

For so many years, preserving agriculture has been synonymous with protecting agricultural land. As a community and with forward-looking political leadership, we used land use regulations (through agricultural zoning) to slow the conversion of West Marin agricultural land into highway-fed development. Here at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), we’ve built on those protections with the addition of a layer of legally-binding conservation easements which permanently protect 55,700 acres of farm and ranch lands throughout the county.

But, despite our great progress and success, we recognize that protecting agricultural land alone is not enough.

To truly preserve agriculture into the future, we also need to invest in the broader protection of our food systems, agriculture economy, and the environment. For our farms and ranches to thrive, they need working barns, pack houses, irrigation, reservoirs, roads, bridges, housing, and more — the infrastructure to help put food on our tables. 

In the past several years, we are beginning to see the shift towards increased investment in larger, intertwined systems as a complement to protecting the land itself. This trend needs to continue and grow. 

Two great examples of this increased investment are MALT’s growing small grants program funded by private donations and Marin County’s FARE Grant Program funded by Measure A public funds.

In addition to protecting agricultural land through conservation easements, MALT also makes grants to agriculturalists throughout Marin County as part of our strategic pillars. 

Beginning with our Stewardship Assistance Program which provides funds to those with a MALT easement in place, we have grown our grants portfolio, first through our DRAWS (Drought Resilience and Water Security) initiative and now through our newly launched small grants program. 

In response to historic drought conditions, the DRAWS initiative funded 95 projects with nearly $1 million in grants centered around water security. The inaugural round of funding for our small grants program which focused on building climate resilience awarded $200,000 earlier this month. We plan on a new funding round every six months.

Examples of types of projects we have funded include rainwater catchment systems, compost application on pastures, fencing to support rotational grazing, and creekside restoration to conserve biodiversity.

The funding for MALT’s small grants programs come from private donations from caring people in the community and we often leverage our grant funding with federal, state, and county sources to amplify the impact and help move projects to completion.

We are also incredibly enthusiastic about a new stream of public funding that will further protect our food systems, agriculture economy, and the environment. 

When Marin County voters chose to extend Measure A in 2020, one of the most exciting aspects of the program was the creation of the FARE Grant Program.

Receiving a 30% share of Measure A funds, the FARE (Food, Agriculture, and Resilient Ecosystems) Grant Program will make awards between $15,000 to $200,000 for planning and implementation projects that support sustainable food systems, climate beneficial management, and improving natural resource values on Marin’s working lands. 

Project topics could include initiatives for local food supply sustainability, community gardens, carbon capture farming, increasing access to low-cost farmland and farming for low-income and underserved communities, and more.

Applications for this county program are open through December 8 with the first awards being made around May 2024.

The county’s new FARE Grant Program shines a light on the evolution of preserving agriculture in Marin, and the continued investment of Marin County voters to support farming and ranching into the future. 

It is a critical time to be involved in the efforts to preserve agriculture in Marin. As agriculture continues to change, we are developing and investing in the structures and systems needed to preserve agriculture for future generations. MALT is especially proud to be a part of this broad effort to continue to build food resilience for future generations and to strengthen our community.

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